Tennessee Williams was born on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi, with the name "Thomas Lanier Williams". At the age of 28, he changed his name to "Tennessee", primarily to distance himself from what he considered to be his early inferior work. Tennessee was the state of his father's birth.
In 1938, Tennessee Williams graduated from the University of Iowa with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He had previously attended the University of Missouri but had to withdraw from his studies when his father forced him to take a job at the International Shoe Company.
Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie tells the story of Tom, his disabled sister, Laura, and their controlling mother who tries to make a match between Laura and a gentleman caller named Jim. Many critics have suggested that Williams used his own dysfunctional family as an inspiration for the play. The Glass Menagerie won the New York Drama Critics' Circle award for best play of the 1944-45 season.
In 1947, Tennessee Williams met and fell in love with Frank Merlo, a second generation Sicilian American who had served in the U.S. Navy during WWII. Merlo proved to be a calming influence on Tennessee, and it was during this period that the playwright produced some of his greatest works. Then, in 1961, Merlo died of lung cancer and Williams fell into a deep depression that would persist for nearly a decade.
The first original screenplay Tennessee Williams wrote, Baby Doll (1956), prompted Time magazine to write "[It is] just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited." Baby Doll, which told the story of two Southern rivals and a sensuous 19-year-old child bride, was also denounced by the Legion of Decency, an organization affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church which condemned the film for its "carnal suggestiveness". During the film's opening weekend, nearly 20 million Catholics picketed the movie, prompting more than three-fourths of the theatres showing it to pull the film. But in spite of the protests, enough people saw it for the baby-doll pajamas that Carroll Baker wore in the movie to create a new fashion.
Elia Kazan directed many of Tennessee Williams' greatest successes, including A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). He is said to have had a profound influence on the final scripts, often pushing Williams to make substantial revisions.
According to official reports, Tennessee Williams choked to death on a bottle cap at his New York City residence at the Hotel Elysee on February 24, 1983. However, his brother, Walter Dakin Williams, has persistently charged that Tennessee was murdered because he intended to make changes to his will.